Monona Bait & Ice Cream’s owner blends niceties with night crawlers

A typical summer day for Dean Schroeder begins with a walk with his 4-year-old Lab, Ruth. The owner of Monona Bait & Ice Cream lives in a home attached to his business, so when it’s time to head to work, he simply opens an adjoining door and steps into his workday. Ruth, meanwhile, keeps watch from her perch at the top of the steps. “Occasionally, Ruth is more important than the ice cream,” Schroeder admits.

Across Winnequah Road, a woman and several children play in Schluter Beach Park, and on this sunny morning, Lake Monona appears as smooth as the hot fudge and caramel warming inside Schroeder’s shop.

“Ice cream is kind of a happy thing. I get known either as Dean, The Bait Guy, or the Ice Cream Man.” — Dean Schroeder, owners, Monona Bait & Ice Cream

It’s nearly 10 a.m. when Schroeder switches on the “open” sign and pipes in an oldies radio station for ambiance. The day has begun.

He purchased the shop and its adjoining three-bedroom home 10 years ago after running Dean’s Downtown Deli on Mifflin Street for about 12 years. “I liked being downtown,” he said, “but it was time for a change.” (The deli has since morphed into the Ivory Room Piano Bar.)

“This building has been here forever,” he says of the 4516 Winnequah Road location, conveniently located on the bike path. For years, he had pedaled past the shop before one day noticing that business seemed to be waning. It wasn’t long before he learned that the property had been foreclosed on, and with the help of his parents, he purchased the home and business.

It was in fairly good shape, he said. Oak Bank, its temporary owner, handled much of the cleanup, with Schroeder adding some detail, but for the most part, very little changed.
Thankfully.

Bewitching business

Light streams into the knotty-pine sunroom decorated with a collection of old sports team pennants, small cuckoo clocks, old Coca-Cola signs, and framed awards.

Inside the main store, old-fashioned ice cream tables instantly remind one of days gone by. A Coca-Cola soda fountain and other nonworking fixtures remain for aesthetic reasons. Food is prepared on a butcher-block table, or grilled on a small electric griddle. A meat slicer sits idle in a corner, and a convection oven appears to be the most frequently used appliance.

The shop sells pizza, wraps, hot dogs, burgers, chicken, subs, and other made-to-order sandwiches such as turkey, ham, roast beef, and salami. Freshly popped popcorn is an afternoon treat. Schroeder, an accomplished, self-taught cook, prides himself on adding a new twist to standard fare.

A candy counter offers both old-fashioned and current favorites, and a cooler contains bottles of soda — including Fanta and Orange Crush — and even several gallons of milk. An ATM, a more modern amenity, is provided for customer convenience since the store does not accept credit cards.

The shop lures customers with a variety of food, fountain drinks, ice cream, fishing gear, and a nice view.

But at this time of year, ice cream is the primary draw. The 27 three-gallon tubs Schroeder purchased last week are nearly gone.

“I like to be my own distributor,” he says. On Thursdays, he heads to Sam’s or Woodman’s to stock up on ingredients, while Fridays are reserved for Babcock Dairy runs.

A man and woman ride up on their bikes. It’s 10:30 a.m. and they order two hot dog baskets before heading outside to sit and enjoy the view from one of the picnic tables. Schroeder heats the food in a convection oven.

In the back corner of the store, a separate refrigerator keeps bait fresh. Schroeder sells leeches, night crawlers, red worms, leaf worms, spikes, and wax worms. He does not sell minnows. A simple selection of basic fishing gear —hooks, bobbers, and other items — hangs on the wall.

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An old-timer saunters up to the bait counter and is greeted by 17-year-old Mike, a summer employee from Monona Grove High School. Mike removes the lids from three containers of worms, sets them on the counter, and pokes at the soil. The worms squirm to life. “These seem pretty good,” the gent nods approvingly. “They have to last ’til Tuesday,” he says, when his grandchildren will visit. “We’ll fish for bluegill, look at them, and then let them go.”

Several families wander in, making a beeline to the ice cream counter. “Cone or dish?” Mike asks, as Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” plays in the background.

One woman on a mission purchases a gallon of ice cream, then leaves. She must have looked past Schroeder’s homemade, chocolate-covered frozen bananas on a stick. “I got the idea watching Bewitched one night,” he laughs. “Serena and Uncle Arthur were making some on the show, so I Googled around for some recipes.”

There’s nothing fancy about this shop and there doesn’t have to be. It exudes its own charm, and Schroeder knows it. “Cosmetically, I don’t think I want to change it,” he admits. “It’s old school and that’s the way I want to leave it, right across from the lake.” His only wish: adding a vent hood one day.

Ice cream dreams

This is not a fast-food restaurant, but customers don’t seem to mind. Several people come in asking for water, while others stop in just to use the restroom. It rankles Schroeder somewhat, since the park across the street has public restrooms and a drinking fountain, and doling out free cups of water costs him money. He’s thinking of charging a small amount to cover the cost of the cups.

The store serves 15 different flavors of ice cream, in cones, dishes, sundaes, malts, and shakes. It also offers the old-fashioned soda mixes created with flavored syrups and phosphate.

Two high school kids help Schroeder out part time, and two more part-timers will be added. “The fun part is not only trying to keep the line moving, but striking up conversations with people,” Schroeder says. “I try to drive that into the kids that work for me. So far, they’re excellent kids.” And, he explains, there’s always something to keep them occupied. “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.”

Schroeder, 45, is an amiable, kind soul who clearly enjoys interacting with his customers. “Ice cream is kind of a happy thing,” he says. “I get known either as Dean, The Bait Guy, or the Ice Cream Man,” and that suits him just fine.

The shop’s posted hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., but he’ll stay open later if people really want their ice cream. “I’m a small version of the Dells,” he says. “You make it when you can.”

Rain, of course, is a business-killer, as is extremely hot weather. “People don’t leave their homes, bikers aren’t out, and it cuts down on walkers,” Schroeder says. He’s keenly aware of events, such as graduations, that might hold down the weekend crowds. Thus far, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was probably his busiest day ever, he said, with people lined up steadily from noon on.

A man for all seasons

At the end of each day, the doors are locked, windows are cleaned of the day’s fingerprints, countertops and floors are scrubbed down, dishes are washed, bathrooms cleaned, and the drawer is counted. Usually, it’s 9:30 or 10 p.m. before he can join Ruth at home — just steps away.

“I plan to stay here as long as the body holds out,” Schroeder says. “I’ll never get a better view of the lake from where I’m living.

“I’m a hard worker and not one to sit around. To me, I’m in the perfect place to do that. I work seven days a week, but that’s what I choose to do. I don’t have a lot of hobbies elsewhere. I have 40 acres of woods in Adams County that I don’t see too often, but when the time comes, I’ll have a place to get away.”

Monona Bait & Ice Cream is a seasonal business, open from late April to early October each year, after which Schroeder is occupied by his other seasonal job as a delivery driver for FedEx. There, he begins his workday at 6 a.m. scanning packages and loading his own truck. During last year’s Christmas season, Schroeder made 220 stops in one day.

It can be demanding work that sometimes requires lifting packages weighing over 100 pounds. “Luckily,” he says, “my right arm is always stronger because I scoop ice cream all day.”

But there’s another perk as well, he notes. Between October and April, he gets two days off each week!